By late 2007, economists nationwide had reached the consensus that a U.S. recession was likely right around the corner, if not already at our doorstop. The PR firm that then employed me, with its revenues and profits increasingly pinched, saw no cause to doubt the forecast.
Rumors of layoffs at our agency started circulating around our office in midtown Manhattan. Our senior management committee met one morning to discuss what to do. Our office head gave us what he saw as the bottom line: layoffs at our firm appeared inevitable. But he also asked how we could prevent any.
What happened next offers a hint about how business leaders might better avoid layoffs today. Call it a Labor Day lesson learned.
Everyone in the conference room looked at everyone else to see who might volunteer a strategy first. All of us in attendance had fine titles and pulled down handsome salaries and now confronted the looming possibility that our very livelihoods were at stake. It felt a little as if we were all now on death row and secretly wondering who would be next in line for the electric chair.
I rarely said anything at senior management meetings, and certainly never impulsively. But an idea suddenly came to mind then and there. And I decided, uncharacteristically, to express it freely.
What if we, the senior leaders present, took slight pay cuts – say, 5% or 10% -- to save some jobs for others? What if we tried this measure purely as a stopgap, with reimbursement for our sacrifice to come later, after the fiscal crisis passed? An easy fix, yes?
Several colleagues stared at me, obviously alarmed, as if I had taken leave of my senses or grown a second head. No one said anything. No one even made an effort to dismiss the idea. My modest proposal had gained less traction than a flat tire. We simply moved on to the next item on our agenda. New business prospects, most likely.
I left the meeting feeling equally good and bad. Good because I was convinced my recommendation for temporary pay cuts to spare layoffs was pragmatic and perhaps even noble. Bad because no one agreed with me, or at least was willing to say so in public. Bad, too, because the indifference I sensed, the lack of empathy, left me cold.
Soon after, with nine years at the firm under my belt, I was laid off. Some 20 other employees were let go as well. Several had attended that senior management meeting.
About a year later, in the wake of the layoffs, word leaked about how the firm was faring. As it turned out, higher-ups had cut the salaries of senior managers across the board by 10% to 20%. Nobody else was being laid off.
That was of course the pre-emptive tactic I had once dared presume to propose. What my former colleagues had evidently regarded as my monumental naivete about fiscal reform the firm had eventually adopted as corporate policy. The upshot was plain to see. If the company had imposed the austerity I had suggested, it probably would have saved some jobs, including mine.
For the record, I felt anything but heroic. But I would do the same again.
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Bob Brody is a public relations consultant and former senior vice president at Weber Shandwick, Ogilvy and Rubenstein. He is also an essayist who contributes to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post, among other publications, and the author of the memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”